(Page 5 of 6)
She woke in the meal tent, her skin hot and bubbling with blisters on her shoulders and scalp. She lay for a moment with her eyes closed, remembering that she was somewhere she didn’t want to be. A woman was singing in a low voice and Virginia smelled something sickeningly sweet. The smell and the rushing return to consciousness caused her to suddenly feel nauseated. She forced her eyes open and fixed them on the opposing wall of the tent to keep herself from throwing up. The smell, she soon realized, was coming from a sticky brown substance that Meme had spread on her body. She was still at work, covering Virginia’s arm, singing to herself.
Virginia jerked her arm away. Meme’s touch repulsed her, and for a split second she thought that Meme was preparing to feed her to the others.
“Where’s Karl?” asked Virginia.
Meme shrugged. “Don’t know. He go home, I think.”
“Yesterday. When you got fired,” said Meme.
She opened her eyes again. “Fired? Who fired me? You mean from The Shepherdess? How do you know?”
As she asked this, she realized the tone in her voice was only a reflex; it was fake indignation. She didn’t care that she’d been fired, only that while she was asleep Meme must have had some sort of contact with the United States, with a person she knew.
Meme looked confused. Gently, she put her fingers on Virginia’s red arm. “I mean, fired.”
Virginia looked at her skin. “Oh, I see.”
Meme nodded. “Okay, then. I get coffee.”
She walked to the other side of the tent and rummaged through one of the metal boxes. Virginia tried to get up off the cot, but found that, even though the poultice Meme had spread on her kept her from serious pain, it still hurt to move. She managed to prop herself up on her elbows.
The refugees were outside the open front flap of the tent. They were milling around, seeming anxious, whispering to each other. Again, it occurred to her that they might be waiting for her to die so they could eat her. But that was unlikely.
“Meme? Why were they running after us earlier? The refugees?”
Meme brought a cup of coffee, which was lukewarm with milk. An origami bird peeked from the pocket of her cotton blouse.
“Well…what I think is, they want you staying here.”
“I don’t want to stay here. I want to go home.”
“Yes? How many babies at home?” Meme gently parted Virginia’s hair and dabbed her scalp with honey.
“None. Well, my nephew. I don’t know. I wanted to help but I don’t know what to do. Should I have some food sent? If I could just call someone—”
“Food never come here, sweet. No translator, no nobody. Just people like you, like the man. They come and they go. Or they don’t go.”
Virginia closed her eyes and imagined staying in the camp forever. She would find nine yards of bright yellow fabric and wrap it around her body, and her skin, after being burnt, would continue to darken, and she would get thinner and thinner until she was another one of them, moving in unison with them, her eyes vacant. She would become a refugee, stranded in between home and a safe place, and she wondered if that was the real reason she had come here, to be between.
Meme popped one of the blisters on her scalp, and it was as if she’d lit a fire in her hair. As a reflex, Virginia lifted an arm to push her, but it hurt too much and she let her arm drop. “God damn,” she said, her eyes welling up, “I just wanted to help.”
Inside of Meme’s pocket, the bird fluttered its paper wings, making a crinkling sound that made the hairs on the back of Virginia’s neck stand up.
“No,” said Meme, “you don’t help us. We help you.”
The night was short, only a couple of hours, so she would have to run. Meme was snoring on the ground near the fire pit, as if anticipating someone might need her to get them a cup of coffee before the sun came up. Virginia swallowed three painkillers, put on a pair of pants, and, with effort, a long-sleeved shirt and a hat. Around her waist she wrapped two cotton scarves to cover her face and neck when she needed them. She left her valise in the tent, but brought her purse, which contained her cell phone, all her credit and identification cards, and a half-gallon jug of water. The cell phone, which she had turned off when it failed to find a signal, only had a little bit of charge remaining. Stepping softly, she made her way to the front flap of the tent and went outside into the desert. She looked up at the sky, anticipating clouds, but it was clear and full of white stars.
The refugee was standing at the edge of the encampment, as though waiting for her. She walked toward him. When she stood squarely in front of him, she stopped. She showed him her cell phone.
“I have to go to the tree so I can call my brother. Umm siysiy.”
He stared at her.
“I left my valise in my tent if you want that. It’s got clothes. Lotion. Socks.”
He moved closer to her, then a little closer, until his face was inches from hers, as though he was going to kiss her. She could see the pores on his face and the shine of the stars on his skin. Strangely, though, she couldn’t feel his proximity, the heat from his body or his breath. There was only one thing she could feel radiating from him, and it was longing, the same emptiness that she had felt in Malibu. He filled her with it. She wanted to drop down right there and start eating the sand, the rocks, everything in her purse. Her legs felt weak and she reached for his red tunic but missed.
“Please,” she said.
If she started eating, she wouldn’t stop—she wouldn’t make it to the tree, she wouldn’t be able to call Scott, she would never leave the desert. She didn’t want to be in between, crouching in a tent. She wanted to be a benefactor. She would be loved. Differently, now, but loved.